Erica Whitaker carefully pondered the plate of crackers presented to her, surveying each of the different brands available for communion that Palm Sunday evening.
Slowly, she moved a finger from her chin to a very yellow selection on the plate, and smiled at the woman presenting it to her.
“Probably not Cheez-Its, thank you,” said Whitaker, the senior pastor at Buechel Park Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
That inspired a few giggles, but certainly no raised eyebrows. Not when the Lord’s Supper that night was to be served at Krazy Dave’s, a bar and grill that shares a working-class neighborhood with Whitaker’s congregation.
The mixing of sacred and mundane is standard operating procedure for the dozen-plus church members to attend Whitaker’s weekly Sunday-night Bible study at the pub. But communion was a new twist added only to mark the beginning of Holy Week.
“If Jesus did it (communion) in an upper room, could it have been above a bar?” church member Rhonda Beverly offered after partaking of the sacrament barely 30 feet from a pair of active pool tables. “Profound things happen in ordinary places all the time.”
Whitaker said Sacred Sundays – the name for the bar-based Bible study – isn’t about winning souls or imparting doctrine.
“This is not pub theology,” she added, referring to popular bar-based programs led by a designated pastor or teacher who imparts a lesson or message.
Whitaker is known at Krazy Dave’s as “the sermonator,” a title that reflects the Master of Divinity degree she earned from Baylor’s Truett Seminary before arriving at Buechel Park Baptist, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation, in 2016.
But she never preaches during the Bible study, opting instead to ask questions and get out of the way of discussion.
“She asks provocative questions and she is there for follow-up questions,” said Carrie Bearden, chair of deacons at Buechel Park Baptist and a faithful attender of the Sunday night Bible study.
Bearden said the gatherings over food, adult beverages and scripture inspired her, a life-long Baptist, to begin auditing seminary classes.
“Erica doesn’t tell us what to believe. She’s just having a conversation with us and . . . it leads us to re-imagine things.”
True to form, Whitaker set the conversations (and debates) rolling among the participants gathered around two long, end-to-end tables. Their assignment was to read Luke 22:14-38. Initially, she asked simply for their takes on the passage.
Some took the conversation along tangents. Others stayed laser focused. Topics included Passover and other Jewish practices, the Zealots of New Testament times and the apostle Peter’s tendency to – in Whitaker’s words – put his foot in this mouth.
“Is Peter getting the message?” she asked.
“Does Peter ever get the message?” her husband, Josh, responded.
Another participant asked if it’s possible Peter was a member of the Zealots.
“That’s a very big question. I have no idea,” Whitaker said. She prodded participants to keep reaching for new perspectives.
An observation about modern-day fundamentalists appropriating Jewish terminology and practices in their own worship sparks another thread of conversation around the table. Whitaker didn’t bite.
“Isn’t that interesting?” she said. “What do we make of that?”
Those were the same questions regulars at Krazy Dave’s were asking about the folks from Buechel Park Baptist when the Bible study began a year ago.
It all started when Whitaker attended the visitation for a woman who had been a faithful customer at the bar. At the event, she met the Krazy Dave’s owner, who in turn invited the minister to a memorial being held at the business.
“That was my first time in the bar,” Whitaker said. “It was a time of sharing and reflecting and drinking, and I met a few of the people. One of the bartenders is a member of our church.”
There were other connections between the bar and the church, and after about six weeks of hanging out at Krazy Dave’s, Whitaker said it hit her.
“I thought how cool would it be if they could provide us with space for a Bible study and we could provide them more revenue on Sunday nights when they have low attendance?”
About then, there was another bar patron who died and Whitaker was asked to perform the funeral. Doing so helped seal the growing relationship between Krazy Dave’s and Buechel Park Baptist, which are located a stone’s throw apart.
“Our Bible study started because of the death of two people,” Whitaker said.
The connections have kept deepening.
“I married one of the bartenders this summer,” Whitaker said. “A number have come to church once or twice at Buechel Park.”
And, now and then, someone sitting at the bar or playing pool will sit in on the Bible study.
Kevin Osborne, known as “K.O.,” has dropped in on both the study and on Sunday worship, even though he identifies as Southern Baptist.
“It’s different,” Osborne said about seeing members of a Baptist church led by a woman pastor and meeting in the bar where he is a regular.
“She’s very good,” he said of Whitaker. “Her point of view on things is very interesting.”
Osborne lauded the group for not being preachy or stand-offish when they’re at Krazy Dave’s. It’s an approach that makes the group, and their leader, more approachable.
“That’s putting the church on a new path,” he said.
At one point Sunday night, Whitaker stood up from the discussion and directed participants to “discuss the idea of loving our enemies. What would that look like?”
Then she squeezed between the two tables. “I’m going to get another drink.”
Spirited conversations ensued. Some debated what an enemy is and isn’t – is the definition limited to those who mean physical harm? Can it include those who seek political and cultural power over others?
“We need to see people beyond labels,” one participant said. “It bothers me that the culture sees Christianity as fundamentalist,” another said. At another table, it was noted that English speakers are limited by having only one word for “love.”
“We have to learn to love ourselves before we can love our enemies,” one woman said.
Whitaker returned to ask if it’s possible Peter was willing to die for Christ without really loving him, to do so for his own political or religious reasons.
“Jesus is asking, ‘are you ready to follow me in a way you never have before?’” she said.
Perhaps this is where Peter’s attitude transforms from Zealot to true disciple, one participant suggested.
“This is the hard, radical work Jesus is calling us to do,” Whitaker responded.
The idea of holding a Bible study in a bar was equally challenging and radical, at least early on.
“For the first six months, it was really hard for our church, and for me as their pastor, to wrap our minds around something this unconventional,” Whitaker recalled.
Pushback from some in the congregation led to doubts about whether that tension could be maintained.
Some didn’t want their church being associated with a tavern, regardless of the nature of the relationship. There was also concern about Baptists openly identifying as such while consuming alcohol so publicly.
“But then you start seeing the fruits of your labor,” Whitaker said.
Those fruits included the subtle and not-so-subtle. It was seeing the occasional bar patron showing up at Sunday worship, expressing a comfort level with church – and with Baptists – they previously never felt. It was being approached by new friends at the pub on issues sacred and profane. And it was seeing Buechel Park Baptist members showing neighbors how to live and struggle with faith.
Once, it inspired one customer at Krazy Dave’s to offer a donation toward the church’s playground remodeling project.
As Whitaker recalled it, the man said: “I probably won’t come to your church, but I love what you’re doing here. Here’s $1,000.”
Some question why participants aren’t at least trying to win souls for Christ.
But in a way they really are, said Bearden, by building lasting, meaningful relationships with neighbors.
“People come in here and sometimes sit with us. They see Christians having a drink and talking about the Bible. Sometimes we’re loud, sometimes we’re serious. This shows what Christians can be like.”
It’s also showing people inside and outside the congregation that the life of the church must be enmeshed in the community around it without expecting something in return.
“This is the re-imagining of the church in the local community,” Whitaker said. “We are authentic and consistent with our presence without any kind of strings attached. That is the key.”